DJ Taylor: What are the Olympics for?

To the reality TV aspirant, 'living the dream' means having your picture in OK magazine

Related Topics

Despite George Orwell's view that international soccer matches werean excuse for young men to kick each other, there is no spectacle like a sporting spectacle. Not the grandest royal investiture, not the most magisterial rock concert, not Live Aid or Millennium night could hold a candle to – say – the sight of Bob Beamon breaking the world long jump record at the 1968 Olympics. The lanky figure pacing the runway; the sudden detonation of speed and flight; bewildered judges registering the fact that Beamon had sailed so far over the pit as to exceed the measuring apparatus: the whole thing remains permanently etched on the consciousness of anyone who saw it.

If this year's Olympiad has, so far, produced a comparable moment, it came on Saturday afternoon when Jamaica's Usain Bolt won the 100 metres in record-breaking time. Again, everything the connoisseur demands from sport was there: the prodigious, colonising talent; the wounded beast (America's Tyson Gay, edged out of the semis by a rogue hamstring); the incidental ironies (Bolt is a 200 metre specialist and had to beg his coach's connivance to run at all). Even better, from the dramatic angle, is the fact that a race is not won until ratified, when the chemists have done their work.

Ask, as utilitarians occasionally do, what the Olympics is for, and the answer is simply this: razzmatazz, oomph, the freewheeling hordes attacking the parched rampart of the velodrome, the simultaneous click of 50,000 cameras. Naturally, particular interest groups involved have their agendas: no doubt the average Chinese bureaucrat doesn't know one end of a coxless four from another, just as the property developer hard at work despoiling the East End in preparation for 2012 wouldn't know a discus if it fell on his head from a great height. To the millions of television viewers, though, the whole thing is simply a variety show on the grand scale, a fortnight-long global party in which the component parts are much less vital than the way in which they are brought and mediated to the public.

The public interest in what takes place in Beijing is, you suspect, pretty much bovine. Apart from a handful of quasi- mainstream sports that get written up in newspapers, most of the Olympic programme focuses on competitions so left-field that the names of their leading lights are virtually unknown. The name of the UK table tennis champion, anyone? Or our clay pigeon-shooting supremo? One of the funniest aspects of this year's media coverage has been the efforts of the Radio 5 Live link-men to seem au fait with the developments in recherché competitions such as dressage and beach volleyball lately come to their notice.

The public, on the other hand, doesn't mind these obscurities, these constant sorties to the synchro-swimming final or the origami team sprint, in the same way that a variety hall audience, once it had said goodbye to the name comedian, was quite happy to take an interest in the plate spinner who followed him. Any sport with a British competitor in it will do, for as well as being about spectacle, the Olympics is also about nationalism, albeit of a rather decorous and encouraging sort. After all, when one thinks of the misuses to which the Union Jack regularly gets put, the sight of it draped around the shoulders of a black athlete as he jogs in celebration around a running track is worth half-a-dozen political pamphlets. The nationalism that one sees at the pool-side or in the velodrome is not, by and large, like the nationalism of the football crowds, neither vengeful nor antagonistic, but merely a collective satisfaction taken in an individual achievement.

In that satisfaction in achievement, too, rests a large part of the Olympics' allure. One thing on which practically all commentators agree is the sheer delight of any British competitor who wins anything. In moral terms – and nothing, deep down, is more of a moral activity than sport – the Games offers the decidedly old-fashioned spectacle of a cavalcade of "ordinary" people being celebrated for virtues like hard work and endeavour and devoting years of their lives to a remote and far-from-guaranteeable triumph, whose contrast with the media landscape running alongside is a bit too strong for comfort. To the reality TV aspirant, "living the dream" means having your picture in OK magazine. To an Olympic hopeful, on the other hand, it means living on hand-outs and getting up at six o'clock every morning to swim three miles for the next four years.

But there are sharper paradoxes than this lurking at the margins of the Beijing party. Although nothing could be more professional than the way in which the Olympic sportsperson goes about his or her business, what is really being celebrated, each time a victorious athlete steps to the podium, is the ancient amateur ethos in which games are won for the glory of winning them and the valiant also-ran is applauded for his part in the spectacle. Naturally enough, money can't altogether be debarred from this arena, but the correlation between achievement and bank balance – the Premiership footballer who knows that each goal scored adds a fraction to his transfer value – is much less flagrant.

At the same time, nothing could be more sharply opposed to these displays of old-style sporting principle than the political and economic context in which Olympiads take place. No politician shaping up to stage the 2020 games is, you imagine, in the least motivated by sport, which generally comes a bad fourth behind prestige, economic regeneration and personal nest-feathering. Interestingly, the public is aware of this contrast: a poll taken last week showed deep unease about the 2012 Olympics and a widespread assumption that it would fail to benefit the parts of London in which it is being staged. All this realises the oddest paradox of all – an international sporting extravaganza, hedged about with venality, graft and ulterior motive, in which, curiously enough, old-fashioned moral virtue is positively encouraged to shine.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Database Administrator

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: The role could involve w...

Science Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified secondary s...

Deputy Head of Science

£22000 - £36000 per annum + MPR / UPR: Randstad Education Southampton: Our cli...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

My limerick response to Mike Read’s Ukip Calypso

Simon Kelner
The number of ring ouzels have seen a 30 per cent decline in the last 10 years  

How the sight of flocks of ring ouzels helps to turn autumn into the new spring

Michael McCarthy
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London